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'Chicago' wins big at toned-down Oscars

Oscar and "Chicago" made sweet music together Sunday evening, despite the din of war heard around the world via television — including ABC news breaks during the Academy Awards show and the occasional celebrity's anti-war remarks.

"Chicago" — the first musical to earn the best-picture nod since "Oliver!" in 1968 — was the evening's big winner, taking home six trophies out of 13 nominations.

Nicole Kidman won as best actress for "The Hours," and, in the evening's biggest surprise, newcomer Adrien Brody won as best actor for "The Pianist." Roman Polanski, "The Pianist's" exiled filmmaker, was another surprise winner as best director — especially since "Chicago" took best picture. Although such a split does occasionally occur, the best-director and best-picture Oscars generally go hand in hand.

The evening was punctuated by humor and the usual glitz, though Oscar organizers, sensing the country's mood, toned things down somewhat . . . at least by Academy Award standards.

Still, it was the award show's diamond anniversary, so there was cause for celebration — despite some worries that, with many of Hollywood's most-outspoken stars in attendance, things could get ugly.

In the end, however, the 3 1/2-hour show was marred by just one inappropriate political incident. Director Michael Moore, whose film "Bowling for Columbine" won for best-documentary feature, used the worldwide-broadcast program as a pulpit to condemn U.S. actions in Iraq. He was roundly booed when he concluded with "Shame on you, Mr. Bush."

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Brody struck the right note with his acceptance speech, when, in addition to thanking Polanski, he said, "Let's pray for a peaceful and swift resolution to this war."

Those sentiments were echoed by Kidman and best-supporting actor Chris Cooper (for "Adaptation"). Kidman said simply, "God bless them," referring to U.S. soldiers fighting in the conflict, while Cooper said, "In light of all the troubles in the world, I wish us all peace."

Some steered away from the Middle East conflict altogether. Eight-months-pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones, picking up the best-supporting actress Oscar for "Chicago," said simply, "my hormones are too out of control for me to be dealing with this."

The show got a much-needed injection of class from host Steve Martin. Rather than entering with an elaborate musical number or other showy theatrics, he simply walked onstage in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre to deliver his opening monologue, which included jokes at expense of celebrities Jack Nicholson, Julie Andrews, Mickey Rooney and, of course, France.

Martin did contribute a couple of off-color moments. But for the most part, his routines were laced with dry wit rather than overt sexual material. He mocked political leanings of U.S. celebrities with his "What is a star?" bit. "They can be Democrats . . . or skinny," Martin cracked, receiving roars of laughter for the deserved jab.

At least a couple of winners were not in attendance. Besides Polanski, best original song-winner Eminem ("Lose Yourself," from "8 Mile") and Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (winner of best animated feature, for "Spirited Away") were no-shows.

In an attempt to cut down time and possibly eliminate controversy, Oscar organizers limited the length of speeches. And for a couple of winners who rambled on, stage technicians actually started lowering microphones.

The resulting program was not only subdued but was also fairly fast-paced. Two Academy Awards were handed out within the first half-hour, possibly the first time that's happened in the show's history.

Refreshingly, the plentiful musical numbers were kept to a minimum, with a montage of previous years' numbers introduced by Andrews, who received one of a handful of standing ovations (others went to actress Olivia de Havilland and actor Peter O'Toole, the latter taking home an honorary Oscar).


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com